Father Andre had made his tea for Iris and Chloe so they could have something to drink as the three of them talked in his somewhat more official office. It was not his one at the church, but adjacent to it, where he conducted more mundane affairs, and he knew that in a few years he would cede its place to Father Nico when retirement was necessary due to age. Until then the desk that he had inherited as well as the globe by it were reminders of continuity going back nearly a century for the globe and almost twice that for the officious desk. While the desk was capacious it was also a huge item that sat between him and anyone and he detested it, preferring one of the wingback chairs close to the leather sofa, which had been a gift from a Captain Heathstone to the church sometime in the early 1950's when the last of the Allies were pulling out of Athens for good. The chairs had come from one of the occupying officers who had occupied these offices and would not be missed, although the chairs were nice ones and had no attachment beyond their Italian origin. With the windows open to the breeze of late summer, he also made sure that chilled melon was available on a platter in neatly cut slices, along with smoked fish and meats that he preferred for entertaining guests. When the two women were comfortable, he told them what he had found out about the revolver. And some of the interesting circumstances he had researched.
Chloe had brightened at the few wartime incidents from the occupation and civil war episodes, and the definite linking of the revolver to a fallen British Officer. The holster and belt were not to the gun, as such, but made locally during a short time between the liberation and civil war and could easily have been acquired by any of the soldiers stationed in Greece during those few months.
"Beyond those things, and just a few incidental news reports of such a woman," Fr. Andre said sitting in the wingback chair he preferred by the table across from the door and the sofa to his left and the old fireplace he rarely used shuttered on his immediate left, "there is little I can find. There have been, of course, many festivals, even in the modern era, even recently, to Athena, but actual sightings of her are anecdotal at best."
Iris looked at her mother who was smiling and nodding her head.
"Most doesn't get reported," Chloe said having a small plate of melon with smoked fish, which she used one of the forks he provided to cut at the melon, "and when some criminal or violent protester falls to the ground, or is tripped by no one, they aren't likely to report it even if they see her for just a moment as the one doing it, now, are they?"
"Mother, please, no more of the stories," Iris implored her mother who took a forkful of melon and bit into it before reaching for a lemon wedge to squeeze onto the melon and fish. "Really, Father Andre, please don't encourage her. You don't have to live with her and her gossip stories from the neighborhood and others that they talk to and text with."
He blinked as he sipped at his tea and then set it down to drizzle some honey from the pot into it, then stirred it.
"I thought it was just your mother and one or two others," he said intently as he leaned back with is tea cup, sipping the now well flavored tea.
"Oh, there aren't many of us, who look for the old signs," Chloe said brightly, taking a cracker up from the platter on the table and crunching it down, setting the little plate down and then sipping at the tea, "and the tea is good, Father. You get it from Sami, yes?"
"Ekatrina's boy gets it from the north and brings it in regularly. A special mix that the family shares with me, and that I can also get at the market, although not as fresh."
Chloe nodded and looked at Iris who was eating at a piece of thinly sliced sausage and melon.
"Iris, she isn't as understanding of the ways and patterns of the city. The whole city, even those place not of the old city that have been taken into the city. They are all important places."
"No one believes the stories, mother," Iris said, "but I can't explain what is going on, either."
"As I've noted the revolver is from an officer according to one of the museums in the UK. A local expert in firearms says it has been used and recently. Well maintained with holster wear, but not that of true belt but one worn over the hips, over another belt, maybe. More recent cleaning fluids have replaced the old ones that the British used, as well as modern oil."
Iris looked at her mother, who shrugged.
"I do not keep track of such things. Perhaps someone felt the need to offer them to her, or a shop may have tossed them out, perhaps. She is the the Blessed Virgin of Athens, and the city is under her care from its founding to this day," Chloe said looking from Iris to Father Andre, "even though I worship God and know my sins are forgiven through the birth of his son, that does not mean I cross them when respecting our city and its history."
Closing his eyes and setting the teacup down, Andre nodded. He opened his eyes and leaned forward to take up a plate, one of the smaller wedges of melon, crackers, a cube of cheese, some of the sliced sausage. Slowly he ate the melon and thought.
"There is no sin in that respect, Chloe. You have been a parishioner since a child and you and your late husband brought Iris up well. Your deeds do not speak of being out of order with Christ or God. I doubt that there are any of the old cults left, even of Athena, as most have been abolished or just fallen out of practice with the loss of active participants in them over the centuries. After the Turks and Independence, then the various changes of power and governments, foreign and domestic, it would be impossible to continue any of the old cults and most fell out of favor before Rome's influence, some even before Christ and Byzantine times. Respect for Athens and the mythology behind it, in all its various forms and histories, comes with living here and being a part of Athens."
Sitting back he put the cube of cheese on a cracker and nibbled at them and then set them on the plate, put it down on the table beside the chair and sipped at his tea.
"It just seems so...strange this leaving things for..her. Athena," Iris said.
"We are only a few who do so," Chloe said, "here and there. I think we mostly assume that the small offerings are taken by dogs, cats, birds or the truly needy amongst us." She looked at Iris who nodded.
"That is what I thought as well, mother. But then this happened... clothes, food and then... nothing has ever come back... some things not taken, of course, food to be disposed of, yes. But never a return of goods in kind. And nothing like the holster, pistol and its stuff. That is just strange. Not even stories of something like that, at least not that you've told me about, mother."
Her mother nodded, looking at her and then Father Andre.
"Iris is right. Gossip and rumors only. Little things going on..."
Father Andre leaned forward.
"How could it be? A pickpocket tripping and saying it was an invisible woman who did it, and that he really meant to just return a dropped wallet...well...you hear the stories, you know?"
"Yes, I do. I've heard quite a few but none involving things like this," he said remembering all the problems of families, rumors of seductions, loss of money, gambling, involvement with drugs, alcohol, bar fights, all of the things that are an endless litany of family and personal problems. Not just gossip but the everyday problems of people that are the source for gossip and stories told by others. This was something different.
Iris looked at her mother who would tell her for hours about the whispers of the Blessed Virgin, and now she seemed reticent.
"Mother, could you tell about what Jacey saw?"
Her mother looked over at her and then at Fr. Andre.
"It was a simple thing, a blanket that was missing from their fire escape and found the next day down at the end of the alley."
"Did the wind take it?" Andre asked looking at Chloe.
"Oh, no! No wind that night, and 5 stories up and the entire thing being creaky, and with their windows open, too. A thief might snatch something like that hanging low, and no one does that, but up so high, that can't be. And the racket the escape makes when people are on it is also not too quiet, even for one person. Cecilia and her husband are very light sleepers. In the morning all the found were a few large feathers on the escape and when they saw the blanket and went to it, it looked as if it had been slept under or wrapped around someone."
"Owls? Not unknown, of course, and very few other night birds could do that."
"Just so!" Chloe said smiling at him. "Then there was Petros, oh some years ago, having a hunting knife that his father had given him go missing after laying out their field kit to dry on the roof. A flat roof, too, their building being so old. A place no one would climb to and again owl feathers there, just a few soft and downy....then there was..."
In the next two hours Fr. Andre just sat back and listened to Chloe and saw Iris just shake her head and relax, nibbling at the melon, sausage, cheese, fish, crackers and later the olives and bread that he sliced up as Chloe continued. These were not the large things of life, but the petty things, the things that weren't important enough to tell a priest and the worries that it might indicate some pagan leanings. It wasn't only just owls, sometimes dogs or cats, even bats especially by cliffs or caves. Most often it was gifts set out gone in the night, a small meal wrapped in a napkin or even oil cloth. Items going missing where only an animal could get to them, leaving scant traces of its passing. Then the more interesting stories of boys and girls, here and there, talking to someone that no one could see and out in public, too, not just around a house. And the sick and those near death seeing her and how everyone avoided her, and yet when she was with them they could see her clearly and she would not remain in the presence of others, as if she understood that this could cause distress. Her sightings during times of distress were just like these, accounts by the wounded, the dying and those witnessing horror and being shocked by it, seeing the young woman put at peril or even wounded by it.
When he bid the two women farewell, he ensured the two that this was nothing that could put their faith in the True Religion to any test. After seeing them off, he shut the door and tidied up the office and adjoining rooms, thinking about all of it.
"I have heard of a ghost in a machine," he whispered, "but a ghost of a city? Not limited to one place, one district, one object, and seen only by the few who are unwilling to come forward because it is, at once, too fantastic and too ordinary. Nothing in the scriptures, associated books, apocrypha, and other teachings give an account of this sort of thing. Oh a harbinger, an angel bringing warning, yes, oh yes! But this is no angel and no ghost, nor of any other thing like that. Supernatural and natural, all at the same time and at once. Sightings distributed, random, happenings spread out over time and places? Yet always a woman or young woman, with flowing black hair or animals doing things for her...but, perhaps, not directed by her? There is also that lost and lonely feeling to these stories, too. It is like a puzzle where so many of the pieces are missing that you can only get some idea of what the puzzle shows. And all I have are some pieces, a few at the edges, a few inside here and there, and nothing that interlocks save what has happened with Chloe and Iris. Yet there are no pieces that can attach to them, either."
Finishing his work, he attended prayer services, this time as a parishioner letting one of the younger Priests lead it, so that he could have time to think and look for the Spirit that is Holy for guidance in the words of others.
Ares was out in the darkness at Ascentech in New Mexico hearing the main doors slowly open behind him as he used light wands to direct Esme as she backed the truck up while Lenny was slowly waking up in the rear of the truck's cab after the long drive from California.
"It'll take a few minutes to get the doors fully open, Aaron," he heard Thad say as he walked out of the main part of the Ascentech hangar.
"Yeah, just getting the truck lined up for you. Thanks for letting me borrow it."
"Oh, no problem, Aaron," Thad said looking at the large object that overflowed the flatbed that had a WIDE LOAD sign on the rear along with a flashing red light attached to the end. "Any troubles?"
Ares shrugged as he waved the light wands in front of him across his chest and out again to signal that the truck was on the correct path and that it should be stopped. Esme eased the truck out of gear, put the breaks on and then let it idle.
"Not really. We got the permits before dawn yesterday, en route. Hit the court offices, and when Lenny got the local court's approval, he handed me that package and I went across the street to hit up the judges there. Showed them the bill, the sales receipt, the payment receipt, the agreement to ship and then the problems of it not being shipped due to impoundment, plus the court orders. They signed off quickly, and then it was a cross-town jaunt to get it. Only a bit of nudging at the guard shack to get into the lot. In two hours we were just about finished when some boss for the guard company showed up wanting to see the papers."
With the truck stopped Thad walked a bit closer to the covering tarps and opened up the rear section and used a flashlight to look around.
"This is the one, all right," he said as the doors continued to rumble open and the exterior lights came to life. He walked back and stood next to Ares as Esme emerged from the truck and stretched her arms out, yawning. "It looks to be a good job, Mr. Culpepper, thanks for the major assist!"
Thad and Ares shook hands as Esme looked up at the engine, walking to the rear of the truck. Inside the late evening work crew was shifting the ALV drop pod into place so that they could slowly off-load the boost engine into it.
"Glad to do it, Thad. Now I have to get back home so that Tamara can get back to work tomorrow, making sure all of this gets off the ground on time."
"Ray let her have some rooms over at the bunkhouse," Thad said with a smile, "and Kyle has been doing OK keeping out of trouble. Only had to rescue him from the overhead gantry once yesterday."
"That is Kyle for you," Ares said with a smile, "so which rooms do we have?"
"It's the 7A-B set, just right as you get in and down the hall. She's inside after getting Kyle to sleep and wants to see you in the teleconference room."
"Right," Ares said as Lenny finally emerged with a briefcase full of the documents used to get the boost engine out of California. "Lenny has the papers and I'll leave it in your hands now. Make sure Esme and Lenny have a place to crash, they deserve it."
"Yeah, no problem," Thad said, watching as Esme started undoing the rear straps and climbed up onto the flatbed checking to make sure that the padding they used was still in place.
"I'll leave it to you, then," Ares said waving at Esme and thanking Lenny before he walked into the main hangar and turned left, to head to the offices.
"...and that is what we know, my brother," Dionysus said from the Event Horizon sitting next to Gemma on his left, with Regina and Hermes to his right.
Ares held Tamara's hand as he looked at the display. Then he looked at Tamara who was looking at him.
"Everyone has their limit," Ares whispered, "even our sister."
"I don't see how anyone could have..." Tamara said with a shiver.
"She finally did burn out of that," Hermes said, "and at some point without those who created the Wild Hunt left to sustain it, then it also went away. That must have been a time of terror for others, though, to find such a thing turned back on them and when they tried to stop it were then consumed, in turn, by it."
Shifting his chair closer to Tamara, he put her right arm around her shoulders and she slid her left around his. Looking back at the screen his right eyelid twitched and he had to close his eyes.
"The most dangerous of us all," he said softly.
"She came back, though," Gemma said, "changed by it."
"That is why our sister changed her name," Dionysus said, "and, really, Artemis was dead by then, broken, battered and then torn apart with rage that lasted as long as any tried to oppose her. She was always more attuned to the world of wilderness than any of us, and then she avoided as much contact as she could. That is the amazing part, for me, at least. She took up her skills, her knowledge and remembered what she had done and then remade herself for herself. While each of us felt the agony of our father's wrath, she felt it many times and then was looked upon as an object by him. By others."
"So dark," Regina whispered, "she said that there are times when...not who she was but...Nature will give her some...I guess power..." she looked at Hermes, "She could see that I would be the mother of 2 families. I was stunned at the club because no one saw me that way. I didn't see me that way."
"That is why I still race nearly anything fast," Hermes said, "but that is now denied me but I still have skills for it. Never have I been in such desperate straights that I lost all control...but she didn't do that but applied the things at hand." Holding Regina's hand she nodded.
"I know I would if anything like that happened to me," Regina said, "just to protect myself."
"She made enemies," Ares said, "you don't kill off that many at the apex and not feel the wrath of those who are their family, love them or depend upon them. They got a reward for attacking her, and it was their destruction and, by their own powers, the destruction of all their kind. Possibly all who were like us. If memory serves the Wild Hunt could show up anywhere."
"That is the case," Dionysus said, "and I should think that given how many forms of clever and cupidity there were, that, really, a century would be long enough to accomplish that. Perhaps even a decade."
"Or one single, blood filled year," Ares whispered as he looked at those at the Event Horizon.
"Could she do that?" Tamara whispered, "So much, so quickly?"
"It would have its price. The Butcher's Bill," Ares said turning to look at her, "and she has paid it. Artemis was chased, dragged, brought down, then those who should have known better thought to defile her. After the red, the time away, and then looking for the one she knew was alive, still, and finding what we each have found, she could not be Artemis. She became Diana."
"I don't think we can sit in judgment of her," Gemma said, "but see what happened and then see how she has come out of it. The young girl, Artemis, I cannot know as you older brothers and one my husband do know her. Diana, the old girl or young woman at the cusp of maturity, she I can talk about and I love her as a sister, both older and younger than I am. And what she has done since then is truly amazing."
"She didn't want this known," Regina said, "and wants no credit, either."
"Ah, sister Regina," Dionysus said, "she isn't doing this for herself, you see. While each of us has gotten lost in life after the fall, she has aimed squarely at rescue of our most grievously harmed sister and then, perhaps, to find a way to finally come to a natural end."
"I'm ashamed to say I never put myself to thinking about Athena so much to do this," Hermes said, "deeply ashamed."
"Don't be," Ares said, "I didn't lose track of helping her, but I became too confined in my thinking. I've always been that way and ignored many a simple thing that should be obvious. Yet I cannot see nor think like our sister Diana. No one can. That is how she can snatch all the pieces and ask if they go together in the night and day. We are still guided by who we were in many ways. She is only guided by who she can become, and she has walked out of the blackest, reddest darkness that can be known and can still smile and laugh and love. Even beloved Athena, trapped as she is, cannot do that."
"My brother..." Regina said, "...you told me that Diana said to you that she would open the Underworld, become the ruler of the planet if she thought that would get her to that place faster. Was her heart behind those words?"
Ares slowly nodded.
"Yes. It was easy to sense she meant it. And also easy to understand that she meant that so long as it was easier, faster to do it by other means, she was fine with that. Make no mistake, though. Failure is no option to her. She loves humanity deeply, that I know, as well. Our job is to make sure that we clear that path out so she can reach its end."
"Just do what we've been doing?" Tamara asked.
"Yes, beloved," Ares said turning to her, "because there is nothing so terrifying as someone who has been thrown into the deepest darkness, returned, then attempts to save one more wronged and is being thwarted from doing so. If she thinks pulling the whole world into that pit will finally get the release of Athena, then there is little any of us can do to stop her."
There actually was a road out there! A paved one! She had seen it not more than three hours ago.
The first stream crossing in from that road needed to have logs replaced and today was that day of replacing old split logs with new ones. Diana worked one of the logs they had brought down this morning and split, and took it on her right shoulder and walked it out, then Marissa called to stop so she could get her shoulder under her end. Together they walked it over to the crossing with Diana carefully stepping on the existing logs until she was on the other side. Together they set it down and looked at the cross-pieces and started first scoring a notch and then cutting at it with hand adzes.
"How the hell can you do this alone, Diana?" she asked working on the log as she knelt on it to cut out the notch she had scored. Diana was on her feet, bent far over and already knocking out the scored section at her end. Marissa had tried to do that, she really had! But she was not as limber as she had been just a decade previously and that meant kneeling down.
"Oh, its not that bad," Diana said cleaning off the cross piece, then testing it with the edge of the adze to make sure the log was still solid. "Normally I can put this off for a bit, then wait for the ground to get hard and just sledge it over here. I'm on a schedule this year, so that means using the Suburban, instead."
Getting the adze into the scores and then across them took some effort, and she started to knock out chunks of the cross-cut notch, although nowhere near the speed that could match her partner. As she got to the half-way point she stopped for a moment and looked at Diana who was walking towards the Suburban to get the next piece out.
"Wait a moment," Marissa said, "you drag these out here?"
Diana stopped and turned to look at her.
"Sure! A lot easier to sledge them out, really. Uphill is a bit tiring, but downhill they side just fine and I can ride the last one down!"
"You're joking, right? Because that has got to be the hardest way to do it. With real short days how do you even get back to the lodge?"
Diana started pulling the next piece out and when it was at the mid-way point, she got her shoulder under it, adjusted it a bit as she lifted it, and then slowly walked forward.
"No," Diana said with a slight pant, "no joke. I don't use power anything unless I have to."
Marissa watched her as she stepped onto the bridging pieces and then stopped at the middle and just dropped the log with the half round side down. It bounced twice before coming to rest face down, ready for working. At that point she put some real effort into her work and finished the notch and stood up. Diana skipped across to the other side and together they lifted the finished piece, turned it over and fit it onto the cross-pieces.
"Grab some line so we can secure it," Diana said looking at her.
Nodding, Marissa walked to the Suburban and got out a roll of the cordage they used to tie the cross-pieces into place. Diana walked back over and they began measuring out pieces to keep the crossing secure during the winter and spring seasons.
"So you just...camp out here overnight?"
Smiling Diana nodded.
"Just like we did hunting," she said taking two cut rope pieces and walking back. Marissa cut pieces for herself and took the rope with her to the crossing. "Except I'm alone, of course. Can't help that as who else would live like this?"
Kneeling down on her side of the piece they had set into place, Marissa worked her hand down between the log edges and passed rope under and across the support.
"Don't you get lonely?" Marissa asked softly.
Deftly moving rope pieces under and over, crossing itself and then again for the second piece, Diana was silent for a moment. After finishing she looked at Marissa.
"How can I be lonely with all of this?" she said with a gesture with her hands out to the surrounding forest. "This is so beautiful, how could I ever feel alone here?" She brought her hands down and looked at Marissa who was finishing her side and putting a final knot in the ropes. "And for all this beauty here, that dark vacuum of space is also beautiful in the nothing it has, save for the island of life we have here. We need more islands. Space is so much less forgiving than here, and yet it also feels good to me to be out in it. Even though I need to bring my own life support with me. That is just a different form of hard work."
Looking up, Marissa locked eyes with Diana.
"Want to join me in space, Marissa? A new life? Hard work?"
Diana nodded slowly.
"But why me?"
"Because, Marissa, I showed you your life and what it has done and you have done. I did not mean to take that all from you," Diana whispered, "and you deserve a second chance. A new life. And you know I will not mind if you say 'no'. Or if you agree and then regret it and beg off that path, I am willing to help you back if you still want it. Or if you find someone to truly love and be with, have a family and be the best mother and wife you can be and you don't need me, that is fine as well. Because I will still love you just the same."
"You will go with or without me, won't you?" Marissa asked as she saw Diana stand up.
"Of course," Diana said with a slow smile. "I don't shy away from what must be done. There will be others out there, as well. And if you are serious about giving up on your former career, then I will help you find a new one if you come with me. First the hard work of survival. Then the creation of islands of life so we can enjoy meals far beyond Earth."
"Then fun," Marissa said standing up, "right?"
Diana smiled as she walked across the new log and stood in front of Marissa.
"Of course, lots of fun. And love. Don't you deserve that in your life?"
This was not something she expected, yet Marissa, as she looked into Diana's eyes saw that there was something behind the deep blue blackness.
"Doesn't everyone?" Marissa asked, as she reached out to hug the slim young woman who had started out as a target, then a nemesis, then a taskmaster, then a friend, then a lover. Her world had been transformed and Marissa knew that if she tried to go back to her old life, she would be miserable. In a city. Surrounded by friends. Going to parties. That was an empty life, and where it led to she now saw was a trap, and one she had stayed in comfortably to be separate from everyone while surrounded by them. Now in the arms of someone she had detested she was no longer empty, lonely and all of it while in the wilderness which was both full and empty at the same time.
"When can I start?" she whispered as they held each other.
"You already have," Diana whispered back.
By mid-afternoon she had given up on trying to talk with anyone, as none saw her and she felt that outright accosting someone who was doing no harm to any other person was not a good thing to do.
"This isn't rejection," she said to herself walking along the sidewalk, "but something different. I don't know what..."
Walking over a bridge she heard a subway emerge from its tunnel and she looked down at it as it sped along the tracks with a clacking sound done over and over by the wheels of the cars. This was no subway stop, there was no station here, nor any park, yet at the far end of the bridge there were stairs going down to a place that looked as if it had a kept lawn. This was puzzling as she couldn't think of how that could be. Walking as she looked down to it she could see a short walkway, a few benches and a small rounded area where the railing along the walkway encircled what looked to be an overlook. There was even a sign there which intrigued her. With nothing else to do she decided to investigate and walked down the steps to the walkway with the strip of kept lawn beside it.
An incoming train approached and sounded its horn, and sped by her with a gust of wind and rush of sound. After its passage she saw that there was an overgrown area on the other side that looked as if it had the foundations of buildings scattered on what remained of the hillside.
She reached the overlook spot and there she read the sign.
'On this site stood the Temples to the Gods in the Center of Ancient Athens'
Turning slowly and stepping around the sign she looked across the way. From the corner of her eye she could see something to the left, a building, yet when she turned it was only subway tracks. Then to her right the sound of a small stream and yet more buildings, but in turning there were only the tracks leading to the tunnels. Again to her right a glimpse of buildings that weren't there and fled from all observation as she turned to look where she thought they were.
"What is going on? It's like I can see...something that isn't there...this place feels familiar and yet, I cannot remember ever being here."
A flutter of wings she heard from an overhead tree branch and she looked up to see a drab gray bird on a perch, a large bird, very rounded in outline.
"That's an owl," she said looking up at it. As she stared at it her keen eyes saw that it was staring at her. She smiled as she walked slowly and saw the owl's head shift to follow her.
"There! You can see me, owl! I am here! In this...this place. But I have no idea of who I am."
The owl shifted its head and looked straight ahead and then slowly closed its eyes.
"If only I could fly," she said softly, "maybe then I might understand where I am from above. Or at least fly to see if anyone could see me anywhere."
She sat on one of the benches and pulled a fig out of a bag of figs that had been next to her when she woke up this morning. Nibbling slowly at the fig she closed her eyes to find out if she could hear any more of what this place was, but only heard the sound of traffic and a train coming or going from the tunnels. Opening her eyes she ate the rest of the fig she had picked out and closed up her satchel which had the bag of figs in it.
"This place holds nothing for me," she said standing up, "I will look elsewhere to see if someone, anyone, can see me and tell me what is going on."
"Careful on moving that system in," Kevin said walking next to the carefully folded orbital station that they could finally pack into the drop container now that the boost engine had been fitted. "Don't hurry, whatever you do, just do it right!"
The man operating the overhead gantry nodded and he watched the hand signals from the spotters on either side of the container as the array moved slowly into place. The man on the far side gave the lateral motion with his hand and the forward motion stopped.
"Guide is about an inch too low to engage the seating rail on this side," he said.
Kevin closed his eyes and shook his head, opened them and walked around to the man on the other side.
"Don't tell me, Vance, its an inch too high on your side, right?" Kevin asked.
"Yeah, Mr. Penk. The entire thing is rotated about 5 degrees clockwise."
"Par for the course," he said looking at Vance then looked at the other 5 people he had making sure that other equipment for the shift to sliding it in went smoothly. "Two of you get come-alongs. We will need the lift to get you up so that you can do a link to link wrap and then slowly lift the low end up. Then we will drop it an inch and slide it in.
From the small group 2 people walked away from the group and one man got to the lift and started it up and moved it around to the side of the incoming system.
"If it's not one thing, it's another," he heard Ares say from his right as he walked towards the lift platform.
"You have got that right. We've spent the last day and a half getting this thing fitted, folded, secured, tightened, adjusted, then finally pulled into place and triple-checking each and every release to make sure it is properly fastened."
"The engine was easy to get in, compared to this. Just a few fittings to adjust once it was seated, then the strut insertions to secure it doubly. This is minor compared to the last major problem."
"Don't say it, Aaron! This thing still has to be inserted and we are nearly out of spare days and it will soon be spare hours, then it won't be spare anything."
He looked back at Kevin and simply smiled.
"The main base still has to be packed," he said with a smile and looked at the large amount of material that was still being fitted together, next to the large ALV-III container for it. "Too bad you couldn't do that one first, but it had to wait for this."
"Don't get me started! I don't like having to shift the WorkPlat container to Highflight as it is. But if we all make deadline, then it will be one of the rare double drops and this an ALV-II and III going about 10 miles from each other."
"A fancy dance, to be sure," Ares said looking at the chains going around the padding that surrounded the folded station. The two work crew members came back from the near side of the hangar and went around the suspended mass and then to the lift. He sidled back to let them through but stayed on the lift just in case an extra pair of hands would come in handy.
"Yeah, and we are starting to run on fumes," Kevin said looking at his watch. "Carefully, its just a few degrees of rotation and then get away from the thing so it can be lowered and slid into place."
Daylight was slowly waning and the day wore on as the fitting continued into the early evening. Everyone was sleeping in the bunkhouses which was putting a strain on everyone's nerves. In another week they would be done and then the work would shift to the lift and drop crews, along with the orbital maintenance crews and his people could get some rest back home for a few days.
"This fucking airshow stunt had better be worth it," he whispered to himself.
"...and that is the way it has to be, Julius. I won't be coming back to pick up my materials, and you can throw the stuff in my cubicle into a dumpster for all I care. I've already arranged for the movers to get to my apartment next week and they'll take everything from there. If you think that there's anything I might want to keep, pack it up and send it over to the supervisor of my apartment."
Marissa looked at the screen of the satellite up-link system from the comms and power hut at the older man who was in his office in Boston.
"Marissa, if that is what you want, then I can get Djanet to pack up your materials. I'm sure that there are some things there, like the Northeastern Reporting Award..."
"Dump it, Julius. All my awards, you can just dump."
He was startled and took off his silver-rimmed glasses to lean forward to look at her.
"What has happened to you, Marissa? You were so proud to get those awards and you really deserved them. Is someone blackmailing you or something? What is up with you?"
Marissa inhaled and leaned back.
"Julius, I just can't do that any more. There is more to life than doing that sort of work, and I got a chance to look back on them...on my life...and I realized that I was losing myself in my work. And not in a good way, either."
He looked puzzled and shook his head.
"If you need time off, I mean real time off..."
Marissa shook her head.
"It's not about 'finding myself'," she said using air quotes,"because I haven't noticed anyone actually doing that, you know? And I've become way too detached from my life...hell I may never have had a good grasp on it before I started writing...in fact I know I didn't. So, no Julius, I don't need time off. I need another line of work. Something different."
He raised his eyebrows.
"Like what, Marissa?"
"Zero-g welding, maybe. I hear there is good money in that. Got a line on someone to teach it to me, too. If not that, I have a few other things I can do to get by. Plus I'll see if I can find some people I really like and just don't treat as interesting diversions."
"Zero-g...are you serious, Marissa? I just can't picture you, ah..."
"Say, Julius, have you ever shot, skinned, tanned the hide of and smoked the meat from a deer?"
He looked startled.
"No..." he whispered, "...what has that to do with...?"
"I have. My life as I was leading it was a dead-end death-trap, Julius. I like you, but I detest what I've been doing and that is that. Finis. My 2 weeks are given and I'm not returning to Boston, either. I've closed down my blog, killed my social media accounts and I'll be getting rid of my cellphone once I get all my commercial activities finished."
"What has gotten into you, Marissa?"
She leaned forward with a sweet smile.
"I'm declaring my freedom and liberty, and I'm going to lead a new and much harder life. Maybe even find someone to share it with, you never know. But first they have to show me just one thing."
"That they are willing to do hard work," she said with a chuckle, "Good-bye, Julius. Give my regrets to everyone who asks."
"Very well, Marissa. I will miss you. Good-bye."
She shut off her connection and looked at her screen with the picture of Diana that she had taken on the sly the first day she arrived. She found its file. And erased it. Then she threw herself back against the chair and let her arms spread out and then down as she looked at the ceiling and exhaled, an immense weight felt like it had finally been removed from her chest.
"I am free at last. Thank God, I am free at last. I did have to leave the throwing up a few times part out if it, though..."
She gave herself a moment to relax and then shifted upright, shut down her phone, and picked up the satchel and the shotgun. There was hard work yet to do today, and she couldn't forget that for the world because of what came at the end of it.
Thad watched as the flatbed left with the ALV-II container that now had the orbital system in it.
"That was a huge part of the stall, and I'm glad it is out the door," he said.
Bill Mankin had switched over to being the gofer and helper guy on the evening shift after his normal shift was over, and he stood next to Thad and watched the flatbed wait for a moment to get its guide truck and trailing truck so that it could have the complete safety convoy required for shipment of the system.
"I never thought that was going to make it out. The next part is just a large tinker-toy set with the main base module, the extending trackway, extended packer and that packed up spiderweb of a rectenna array. Plus the boring system to get the cooling part down, the ROV for doing any of the necessary shifting and maintenance work, plus the cutting up of the primary boost rocket and removal of the descent thrusters to get the surveyor hopper put together."
The doors to the hangar started to close with the warning lights flashing and the buzzers sounding, to remind everyone that the great rumbling they heard and felt was not an earthquake.
"I'm just the construction crew chief," Thad said, "you're the fiend who created this thing with all the nasty, collapsible, springy parts that then fall apart into a nice looking structure."
"When it all works right, that is what it was supposed to do. And this cute little unit," he said turning with Thad to slowly walk to where space was being cleared for the ALV-III drop container, "has the added benefit of being able to retract all those parts, pull up its chiller, and then slowly trundle over to a better site. Plus the spent thruster tanks can be used for local gas and liquid capture for later pick-up or shifting to the next accelerator system in a couple of years."
"No, don't tell me," Thad said, "you're already designing it now."
Bill blinked then smiled.
"Designing? Why I ordered the carbon fiber chassis for the ROV systems already! This little critter is just tossing spitballs out into orbit. The next one can take the booster tanks if they are still around and toss them out to Earth orbit. Filled! By the time we get this all done, sent up, delivered, the first deliveries for the NEXT system will already be here. Of course we have to store them off to the side for awhile, since the ALV-IV, our first real single stage to orbit system gets finished."
He looked up to see the already large pieces that had been constructed hanging on a girder system put in place just to allow a separate gantry to move those pieces around.
"Yeah there is that. Once we clear the last of this lunar stuff out, then that gets final construction. Ray wants to pop it as a surprise finale at the airshow, seeing the basic Pegasus put together. We've been working on that piecemeal for nearly 3 years and now, finally, we get finish that baby."
"You got it, Thad. Then the sky is no limit, at all."
Looking down from his office, Ray had seen the lunar orbiter being loaded on the flatbed, secured, triple checked and then decided to go down to the front office steps to watch the convoy get together and then slowly start off. Distantly behind him, he heard the doors closing to the hangar and smiled. Across the way, from the hastily erected buildings for the crew to stay in, he saw Tamara and Aaron walking out into the parking area and they had Kyle with them. Smiling he went down the steps and crossed over towards them.
"Ray, I thought you had went home by now!" Tamara said loudly as he walked to them. The doors were nearly shut and by the time he arrived the suddenness of the quiet was almost as deafening as the rumbling of the doors.
"No, I couldn't leave, not with that going out tonight. Others have put stuff into orbit around the Moon, but that is a full up, wide spectrum spectroscopy and deep penetrating radar system, along with units to look for any gas escaping from deep inside the Moon. We think there may be some of the heaviest gasses forming pools in areas of perpetual darkness and we have a nice little laser and maser system to test that out. Plus the most intense point mapping of the entire Lunar surface done by anyone, down to the centimeter range for all of it by next year, and in the millimeter range for areas of interest."
"Yeah, its a huge system," Ares said letting go of Kyle's hand.
"Hello, Mr. Kaplan," Kyle said to Ray.
"And hello to you, Mr. Culpepper," Ray said extending his hand and Kyle shaking it. "And how are you today?"
"I'm doing OK, I guess," he said looking up at Tamara who chuckled.
"He's been doing some of the math and science work that Bill suggested he try out. He was interested in some of the solid modeling programs and there are some free software programs that help youngsters learn the basics."
Ray shook his head, smiling.
"Well that is about a 20 year head start on everyone else, I guess."
"Plus some long-term history overviews," Ares said smiling at Ray, "nothing hard, but interesting. Mostly commercial programs, but some good history research to help back them up."
"Yeah," Kyle said, "didn't know things went back that long."
Ray nodded and rubbed his chin and then looked around the large area that was the parking lot and looked over beyond the hangar to the south.
"I think I'll check up on the array, just to make sure that it doesn't need an early washing. Dust around here sticks to nearly everything and those older style panels don't have an anti-static system on them."
Tamara nodded, looking at Kyle then Ares.
"Late dinner for me," she said, "and Kyle needs something too, by now."
Kyle smiled looking up at Tamara and nodded.
"I'll pass for now," Ares said, "and join you for the walk, Ray."
"Good! Not a long walk, but something to stretch my legs after today's work, I think. Tamara, Kyle, I hope we can talk, later, OK?"
"Sure, Ray. I'll have to be heading over to Highflight to get caught up on the engine pod work since things are in hand here for the rest of the mission."
"Can I go too, mom?" Kyle asked.
She looked at Ares who shrugged in a 'that's up to you' manner, but did a quick glance at the sky.
"It'll be late, Kyle, so you had better stay here. You can catch a few programs here or watch the assembly going on in the hangar, but only if you promise to stay out of trouble."
"Can I go up to the gantry?" he asked.
Both his parents said "NO" and looked at each other and shook their heads.
Ray just looked at them and shook his head as well.
"Don't worry, I'll keep him out of trouble while Aaron gets something to eat, then it's up to him."
"All right, sounds like a plan," Ares said.
"Sorry you have to stay here, Kyle. Chilimac reward sound good?"
"Oh, yes, please!"
Tamara looked at Kyle, gave a nod of her head and they walked off waving at Ray and Ares. They both watched her for a minute and then turned to start walking over to the power system.
"So what's up, Ray?"
"Well, I would like to get a retrofit of the solar array, but that's not all that important."
"Uh-huh, I figured as much," Ares said as they walked slowly past the parking lot and down a walkway beside the hangar.
"Yes, we've taken the static test billets and have two sets in orbit, you know?"
Ares nodded as they approached the rear shack that was the power transfer for the building and grid tie-in. This system also fed the battery array stored in the underground chamber that had held the old tank system for blimps and dirigibles back when this was a military facility in the 1940's. Their own tank system was on the other side of the building and that was now a hydrogen compression system for the ALV platforms.
"Two sets of 3 each, plus sealed solid propellant systems, and relatively simple guidance systems, too. Done during the ALV-III tests and during upgrade tests. Total of 6 loads."
"Yes, they are in co-orbit with the work plat, nominally a part of that system but we will leave it behind during the transfer. It's an independent sub-system but meant to tie into the entire work plat."
As they passed the power facility and were under the shade of the array, the next building started to come up and it was a long prefabricated building that could hold up to 3 ALV-III drop containers, although it was mostly used for spares, and parts that were too long or too bulky to be left in the hangar.
"It cost a bit to get the billets put together, lathed down, ceramic coated and then fitted with everything, you know? I mean we have used them as static test slugs for different systems and used one at the rocket sled facility 4 years ago. Nothing has the mass of those things and they are perfect for testing propulsion systems."
"Well, that is the cover story for them, isn't it? That and being raw material for high density shielding for the work plat once it gets up and running."
When they got to the walkway going in front of the second building, Ray took it and walked over to the door and used his card and bioprint to open the door. They stepped into the large building which was quite warm from the day's sunshine. Behind a forward part of an ALV-II container and an old boost rocket that had a number of defects in it, and second from that batch next to it, was a set of holders that had 3 large ceramic coated metal rods attached to them. Each of the rods was nearly 2 feet across and nearly 40 feet long, and the far ends had cavities in them that had clear plastic over them.
"I can't believe that these were just left out in a storage facility outside the missile range where anyone could get them," Ray whispered, "it's just crazy."
They stopped beside the rods which were on a long wheeled cart along with their carrier.
"Money got spent quite freely in the '80s, Ray. This was part of the high speed interceptor program, but someone forgot that it is hard to get dense materials accelerated quickly."
Ray smirked as he turned to look at Ares.
"I know! That's why we use them for static and track work. If 10% of a rocket fuel load can't budge one of these on the rocket sled more than 50 feet, then its useless. I worked with Herman on the smaller version of the monofuel system, Aaron, and we used these for that set of tests. Right now all my money coming from the company is getting plowed back in consumables, mostly. These," he said tapping the copper toned metal with the knuckle of his index finger of his left hand, "are consumables."
Ares looked at him with a frown.
"Can't he get the engines for you?"
"He already has them on order, Aaron. I've talked it over with Darlene and these things are contingency but necessary things. We've already shifted the funds."
"Well that decision is made then."
Ray raised his eyebrows, then chuckled.
"Diana now holds the majority of the company. Even in non-voting condition it means that everything we do, now, is under her investments. And there is no way we could have gotten to this point without her, you or Herman. You and Herman we could buy out 4 years ago, which Herman took for Highflight and you took for working capital by and large, but there was no way to buy out the amount Diana plowed into this place. On paper I make a few million a year on Ascentech, but in reality 99% of that goes into the company but not for investment but as a pay cut to me to keep it running, meet payroll and make sure the bills get paid. That isn't investment, but overhead."
Ares looked over at the long rod and slid his hand over it, feeling its machined surface that was polished to be mirror smooth.
"She can't liquidate it publicly without putting the company public, right?"
"You know, Ray, there might be an answer to this. I'll need to talk with her, but I think we just might be able to reduce her percentage and get her involved in something else."
"Really? What would that be?"
Ares smiled as he spread his hand on the metal rod.
"I think I'll have to have a talk with Mason. And cousin Dennis. Really, we do need to grow crops in orbit and in other facilities like on the Moon. Dennis is good at that, Jasmine has the nano to bacterial scale work and that just leaves the growing of plants in more natural settings in the form of horticulture for more daily use. And I can't think of someone better at that than Diana...you've been up to her place in Alaska and seen how the garden is mostly just for show. The real work is getting all the right plants to grow in the right places and yet leave it all looking natural. Dennis can do the agricultural and crop side."
"Ahhh...it wouldn't be an equal swap, though, would it?"
"Herman might be able to help a bit in that, too. At the very least get her out of the largest percentage holder category and you back into it."
"I could put up with that, at least. We do too much work with SLSR and Mason in a minority position would help him to diversify his income. And that puts SLSR squarely in the habitation of space business. Herman in for a few percent here isn't that big a deal, either. Say what have you been working on beside all of this?"
"You mean beyond keeping Kyle busy, and making sure Tamara has the support she needs?"
"I know it has something to do with an Athena style vehicle, but you aren't making it with Herman's organization, are you?"
"That's right, its all private spare time work. Maybe in a month we will hit you up for an ALV-III drop. Kevin says we are now into the working prototype stage and Karl agrees. By using the basic overall design schema of the Athena line, we don't need much in the way of testing of the overall design for flight. Scaling it out and adjusting it some is well known territory now. We are going to do is push the ALV-III carry capacity to the limit, though, and still expect a good 15 miles ascent out if it. Because that is the only thing that will lift it."
Ray looked at him.
"Dear god, Aaron. What the hell is it?"
"A custom corvette. It isn't a car. Come on and let me see if I can catch Mason via the up-link system. Then I have to get something to eat while you corral Kyle."
Nodding, Ray followed Ares as he walked next to the rod, letting his hand slide over it as he walked to the end, and saw him give a pat at the very end of the rod near where it was sealed. He started dredging through his memory as to what else had the name of corvette, and was coming up empty. An hour later, after getting Kyle out of the teleconference room, they went over to his personal system so that he could look up the term corvette.
He stopped and looked at Kyle who had a smaller tablet system he was using to do some solid modeling.
Kyle looked at Ray.
"Yes, Mr. Kaplan?"
"What is it you're modeling there?"
Kyle looked at the screen which held a very sleek design that looked like a blended wingbody, but had sections that looked like they were detachable.
"Oh, that's a corvette, but a...umm...dad showed me an old documentary...ahhh..Q-ship! That's it! A Corvette Q-Ship!"
"It looks very nice," Ray said softly and swallowing.
"Yeah, it is! Dad's putting the plasma and Mach effect systems in it, too!"
"Really?" Ray asked softly, "Did your dad say what it's for?"
Kyle smiled and nodded.
"He said its to keep people honest."
Ray blinked and looked from Kyle's screen and got to work on his own system.
"Thank you, Kyle."
"Sure, Mr. Kaplan!"
Just like with Herman, Ray didn't know exactly what was going on. Like with the drop container systems he hadn't thought that extra step or two and now realized that if Herman had been a step or two ahead, that Aaron was a few beyond that. Because all that Kyle had just told him did start to fit together, but no one had ever even proposed anything like it. He had to look at the company's drop schedule the week after the airshow, the time when it was back to business and he checked for the ALV-III drops and saw that there was one set aside for something called the Project Anaheim and its POC was Karl Odistold. Then he saw that it had a pilot for it, as well. Aaron Culpepper. That would be about when the OASIS I was coming back from the Moon trip.
He glanced over at Kyle who was busily playing with different forms on the Corvette and Ray had that sinking feeling that not only was something advanced going on, not only was he not let in on it, but that the timing was no coincidence and that anyone wanting the near 100 ton drop capacity of the the late model ALV-III was up to something serious. One of those got the work plat framing and booster system to orbit. They could haul a lot and they were not cheap to use, and a high profit item on Ascentech's schedule. Mostly they were a cost sink for the company since it was taking people awhile to realize just how much mass that actually was. Most people thought in terms of something they could get their minds around and one of the most common items he used was a standard city bus. When you put it in terms of 4 or 5 city buses, then people started to get a real picture of what you were talking about. Even Herman hadn't come up with a design to exploit the full capacity of the ALV-III and had stuck to dropping massive engineering loads, by and large, save for the one time he had used an ALV-III for the core of the OASIS II. That was going to be a big place when he got done with it. But a 100 ton space vehicle? Even if 90 of it was just for the rocket system that was a lot of vehicle.
Ray stopped and thought for a moment and started looking up what it was that Mach and Einstein had gotten up to back in the day. There was some serious reading here and he realized he was nearly at the time he had to go home. He duped his work over to his traveling tablet and sent a copy to Darlene for her to mull over. He was getting a headache trying to get his mind around something called 'apparent mass' and the effort was leaving him less sure of what Aaron was doing rather than more.
"Kyle, I've got to leave and want to drop you off with your father," he said shutting down the system in his office and Kyle nodded hibernating his tablet system.
"OK, Mr. Kaplan. I like your office, lots! All sorts of connectivity here!"
"It goes with the title of President and CEO of the company," he said snapping his briefcase shut, "come on, I need to get out of here before Darlene has a fit."
He wasn't that worried, actually, as he was pretty sure that she would find all of this just as interesting and puzzling as he did. He didn't interrupt Aaron, and just let Kyle slip into the teleconference room since it was a private conversation and he knew that Aaron had a few sets of encryption up on it.
To keep people honest, he had said about that.
A Corvette Q-Ship. To keep people honest.
Ray smiled as he knew that whatever the surprise was at the end, that it would, indeed, keep people honest. That was something that Aaron was very good at doing.